MOSCOW – A Russian court on Wednesday abruptly delayed the verdict in the trial of jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky (search) in a case that has alarmed foreign investors, tipped oil prices and called into question President Vladimir Putin's (search) commitment to democracy.
Khodorkovsky, the founder of Russia's largest oil company, is accused of tax evasion and fraud — charges many see as political with the goal of putting him in prison long enough to prevent him from being a factor in the 2008 presidential elections.
The verdict had been expected Wednesday, but an unsigned notice posted at a Moscow courthouse said the verdict in his case and that of two associates had been postponed until May 16.
The unexplained delay in Russia's biggest post-Soviet era trial came hours before Putin was to begin the first visit of a Kremlin leader to Israel, where some fear the oil tycoon is being targeted partly because he is Jewish.
The Interfax news agency reported that a court official had said the chief judge in the case, Irina Kolesnikova, had not yet finished writing the judgment.
When asked why the postponement took place, Yevgeny Baru, a defense lawyer, said: "It remains a secret."
The tycoon's father, Boris, said that the delay came because of the "massive interest" in the trial, and suggested the verdict would be postponed until interest died out.
"They say it is canceled, fewer will come next time ... eventually no one will come," he said amid a crush of reporters and flag-waving Khodorkovsky supporters outside the courthouse.
The postponement could be due to a combination of factors that could cause embarrassment to Putin. He was due to arrive Wednesday night in Israel.
Putin is also hosting about 50 world leaders in Moscow on May 9 for celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the Allies' victory in Europe, and would not want any protests over the case to spoil the pomp.
"If there was a guilty verdict ... the holiday would be darkened," said Vladimir Ryzhkov, a liberal lawmaker, reflecting a widespread view that the postponement was made for political reasons.
Others said the postponement did not bode well for Khodorkovsky because it could allow the spotlight on the case to dim, giving the court an opportunity to impose a severe sentence.
The trial is the biggest in Russia's post-communist history, and few people are betting on an acquittal for the Yukos (search) founder.
"Only in a non-democratic country can the president intervene so blatantly in a legal process and control the courts to the extent that he predetermines the verdict and the dates of the court decision regarding his political enemies," Leonid Nevzlin, a former Khodorkovsky associate and large Yukos shareholder who now lives in Israel, said in a statement Wednesday.
The politically charged trial and the dismantling of Yukos — once considered Russia's most transparent company — dampened enthusiasm for investment in the country and helped push oil prices to record highs over supply fears.
What began with the tycoon being rousted at gunpoint from his private jet in October 2003 led to escalating tax claims against Yukos. Then in December, the company's 1 million barrels-a-day Yuganskneftegaz unit was auctioned off to pay a staggering $28 billion tax bill.
Khodorkovsky complained futilely from his jail cell of Kremlin interference; U.S. investors lost $6 billion as the relentless assault turned Russia's biggest blue chip into a penny stock.
Nineteen months after Khodorkovsky's arrest, once-thriving businesses are reeling as emboldened tax authorities conduct smaller back tax probes. The turmoil is blamed for cutting back gross domestic product growth at a time when oil prices — Russia's main commodity — are at an all-time high.
"If (Putin) wants to give a statement to the West that in fact Russia is a place where anyone can count on a business climate, free Khodorkovsky," said Robert Amsterdam, Khodorkovsky's Toronto-based lawyer.
Alex Goldfarb, an aide to exiled Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky (search), said from London that the postponement was "a sign Putin is stalling, fearing the moment the sentence is announced there will be tremendous pressure to continue going after big financial groups."
Khodorkovsky and his partners enjoy little sympathy from a population that was plunged into poverty after the Soviet Union's collapse and forced to watch as the elite divvied up industrial wealth in backroom deals.
"He cheated us all," said retiree Alfred Grinadyor, one of about 200 people gathered outside the yellow, brick courthouse in northeast Moscow.
Grinadyor said he lost money when Khodorkovsky's Menatep Bank (search), in which he had held shares, went bankrupt amid Russia's 1998 financial collapse.
State Prosecutor Dmitry Shokhin has called for Khodorkovsky, 41, to receive the maximum 10-year sentence.
Together with business partner Platon Lebedev, the tycoon is charged with rigging a privatization auction in 1994, stripping profits from a major fertilizer component maker, Apatit, illegally using onshore tax havens to slash Yukos' tax bills as well as dodging millions in personal income tax. Andrei Krainov, a former director of the Volna company, which acquired the Apatit shares, is also standing trial.